Friday morning, very early, my husband and I set out on one of the mini-trips that we sometimes get to take. Like most of the others, this was school-related as it involved a writing workshop in connection with the Alabama Book Festival. We have been to these workshops several times and they are always very informative as well as fun. This time, we decided to stay for the Book Festival since we had never been, and then hit the art museum before heading home as it is one of our happiest and most favorite places on earth. I think that if we lived in Montgomery, we would probably go there every day. Just sitting and watching the ducks on the water is a balm to my spirit.
The trip was uneventful but pleasant, as we rode in the half-dark and the fog and then saw the sun come up slowly on the horizon. Beautiful. We talked a lot-about our students, our own kids, fond memories of past road trips, books, music, God, life-the things we usually talk about when we get the chance to be alone together. We talked about where we are now as opposed to where we imagined we would be, and we talked of the future. We are not so old that we don’t still dream of possibilities. Both of us would love to become published writers, among other things, and, since we plan on living to be a hundred, we’ve still got over fifty years left. We do not know what God has in store, but we love to think about it.
After the workshop, we checked into the hotel and checked in with the kids, who were doing fine and seemed almost irritated about our concern. Usually when we go out of town my mom stays with them, but we thought it was time to leave them on their own. At nineteen, fifteen, and thirteen, they are certainly old enough, and they proved themselves to be just as self-sufficient and capable as we believed them to be. Is this not the goal we work toward as parents? Then why did I feel a pang of sadness? We have spent the last seven and a half years teaching them the skills they need to be independent. They can cook, clean, do laundry, administer basic first aid, look after their pets and take care of each other. They are honest and honorable, and we have friends and family close by in case of a serious emergency. Still, when the youngest( who as recently as a year ago would say, “Daddy, call me tonight ,okay?” when she would go to spend the night with a friend )says, “What did you need, Dad?” when she answers her phone, you get the feeling that you are being outgrown. So often now we get THE LOOK-not disrespectful, just amused and indulgent-that says, “Wow, Mom and Dad are weird.”
We had dinner at the Bonefish Grill, a rare and delightful treat. As we were sitting there, two little girls, obviously sisters, probably ages about six and nine, came clomping past us, holding hands and giggling. They had on sparkly butterfly shirts and semi-high heels-the younger one’s shoes actually lit up-and you could tell they felt very sophisticated. I remembered the day-four years ago, maybe, or five-when Raina dressed up like a goblin and dressed Ally up like a fairy princess and they chased each other around in circles. I wonder what became of those costumes, and all their other dress-up clothes. The last time they cleaned their closet, I think they were fairly ruthless as to what they discarded. I wish now that I had asked.
As I lay in bed on Friday night, listening to the unaccustomed sounds of the city, I remembered when I asked God to “send them”. I didn’t mean just children of our own, but broken children-broken people-and I thought about how we were approached by a man in the parking lot earlier that evening. He said he was not a bum, which may or may not have been true, but asking him his life story is not in God’s command. We gave him what little cash we had. When someone says, “Will you help me?” there is no option, as far as I’m concerned. This is my burden, to be my brother’s keeper, and I asked for it. I asked for it ten years ago, and even before that. I asked for it at the age of fifteen, when I stood up at a youth conference and dedicated my life to Christ and to Christian service, having no idea where that would lead. I guess I really asked for it at the age of seven, one Sunday afternoon in the car, when I invited Him in. I was a child, but God was already moving. How I now see that over the course of my life from that moment is another story for another time.
The book festival was wonderful. We saw excerpts from a play called “Come Home,It’s Suppertime.” This included some good old gospel music, such as “I’ll Fly Away,” and a description of what used to be known around here as “dinner on the ground”. It made me smile, but once again I felt God stirring my heart and I was transported, just for a moment, to that place where He takes me, a place that is familiar and homey and yet, I feel that I have never quite gotten there. Not all the way. He gives me glimpses of the Divine just to leave me hungry for it. The little girl sitting in the pew on Sunday morning wearing the itchy dress and the foot-pinching shoes always knew there was Something. It was not contained within the four walls and the stained-glass windows; it was so much more. I meet God in church, but I have been in churches where He was not truly welcome, only some man-made idea of Him.I have stood with my feet in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and seen Him in the flight of a seagull, and I have experienced His Presence while working with underprivileged kids or teaching an English class. This Something that is called “salvation” is beyond what can truly be comprehended with our finite minds. It is knowing God.
I was so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit with my friend Jim for a few minutes. He is now married and makes his home in Montgomery. We were good friends in high school, and he is among the handful of people, outside of my family, who has seen me at my worst. My high school years were not my best time. I doubt they are anyone’s, really, and if they are, that’s kind of sad, because there are about 80 years to live after that is all over. Sure, I had fun sometimes, and I was blessed with amazing parents who saw me through the really dark places. It’s so funny that when I tell people I used to be shy, they actually laugh, and when I tell students that I went through an “emo” time, they shake their heads in disbelief. Actually, I was emo before it had a name. But through that time, I still had friends (I’m not sure why they put up with me) and, existentially despairing though my thoughts may have been, I did not doubt the existence of God. The great thing about Jesus is that He does not move, even when our faith wavers or we engage in behavior that is absolutely stupid. I try to assure my students of this because I know it from personal experience. So, Jim-and Deb, and Heidi, and Kevin, and all of my friends-thanks for being there, then and now. All of you know that I am not like that anymore. I would say that I found God, but He was never lost to begin with-I was.
After the book festival, we debated whether to try Korean or Vietnamese food. We went with Korean, deciding to try Vietnamese the next time around. We like to try different kinds of food, but when I saw that the menu had “hot dog stew”, I was a bit worried. Freddie, of course, played this up and nearly had me convinced that there was dog in it. I also refused to eat octopus. I have had calamari and am not fond of it; I figure octopus and squid are fairly interchangeable. I ordered sliced beef that was seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, and it was divine. We also got a dumpling appetizer served with various sides-picked potatoes, pumpkin stems, yellow radishes-and all of it was delicious. Our waitress was a grandmotherly type who seemed miffed when we inquired about chicken soup. “Chicken soup is at Chinese restaurant. This Korean food,” she said sternly. Yes, ma’am.
Our final stop in Montgomery was the art museum. One of the featured exhibits right now is Dale Nichols’ regional paintings. I was, as I said, mesmerized by “Foundation”. It was another one of those moments when I saw Truth so plainly. It sums up what I believe about life, about God, about the importance of education and the great responsibility teachers and parents have to provide the strong Foundation. Earlier, Jim had mentioned that he was considering the teaching profession. I told him that what keeps me as a teacher going is the handful of students who respond to my teaching, those moments when I know a student has “gotten it”. When a kid says, “Reading To Kill a Mockingbird changed my life,” I am refueled for a month or more. The fulfillment isn’t in the daily grind or the petty details. It’s in the little moments. Life is pretty much like that anyway. The moments. Watching a little kid throw bread to the ducks and (gigantic) carp and turtles in the lake outside the museum. Rescuing one of those turtles who has gotten too brave and is sitting traumatized in the road. He was nearly crushed by the car ahead of us. Maybe the driver didn’t see him. I would rather think that than believe he didn’t care. We stopped and I got out. I have to care. I can’t help it. I put him back where he belonged. He is incapable of gratitude. Some people are, too. We just have to love them all anyway.
On the way home we stopped at Priester’s and got milkshakes.Mine, of course, was double chocolate. I childishly wanted a stuffed owl. His name is Wol. We listened to the radio as we traveled and it seemed that every song was speaking directly to me. The Sidewalk Prophets reminded me that “I Want to Live Like That” and the Dave Crowder Band assured me of “How He Loves”. Forty-five minutes from home, an old country preacher came on and spoke for fifteen minutes about how Jesus is our best friend-and how we are supposed to tell the world this. This was the culmination of what I had been feeling for two days. This was what He wanted me to get from this trip. A reminder of Who He is, and of who I am supposed to be in Him. I was overwhelmed. I know that I cannot do this alone. When I asked God to “send them”, I was never assuming my own strength. He wasn’t either. He knows me. He sees me as I am, and loves me anyway.He sees who I can be in Him, and commands that I be His hands and feet and voice right here and now, on this planet, in every moment and to everyone and all of Creation.
“For such a time as this, I was placed upon the earth, to hear the voice of God and do His will, whatever it is/For such a time as this, for now and all the days He gives, I am here, I am here, and I am His, for such a time as this.”